Cinema Femme had the chance to speak with Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, the talented Costa Rican-Swedish helmer of “Clara Sola”. The movie, premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight last year, had a highly successful festival run and was recently showcased at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam (26 January-6 February). The story, set in a remote village in Costa Rica, centers on Clara, a withdrawn 40-year-old woman played by Wendy Chinchilla Araya. Clara experiences an intense sexual and mystical awakening as she begins a journey to free herself from the repressive religious and social conventions which have dominated her life. A co-production between Sweden, Costa Rica, Belgium and Germany, Álvarez Mesén’s debut received rave reviews from the main trades and great praise for its elements of magical realism, its striking imagery and its complex lead characters. It also scooped five prizes at the Guldbagges, Sweden’s national film awards, including Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Director.
When did you start working on “Clara Sola”?
A long time ago. The idea for the main character came about during an application for a screenwriting school and then I kept on developing it ‘under the surface.’ In 2015, I met the producer, Nima Yousefi, and we decided to develop it further. The story wasn’t yet there, though. I had in mind the main character, the world surrounding her and some themes…
When did you finalize the script?
Some days before shooting [laughs]! The script is always ‘morphing,’ you know… When we greenlit the film some time before the shoot and the heads of departments started working on it, there was a finalized draft, but some more changes came along the way.
How long did filming take?
We entered production in Costa Rica in February 2020. We filmed it for seven weeks. We wrapped the same week the pandemic entered the country.
So you were lucky enough to work under pre-pandemic conditions…
What about the two leads? How did you choose Wendy [Chinchilla, who plays Clara] and Daniel [Castañeda Rincón, who portrays a young worker called Santiago]?
None of them are actors. In Spanish, we call non-actors ‘natural actors,’ since the term does not imply the negation of something, and it’s much nicer. Wendy is a dancer, and I had seen her dancing when I was a teenager. Then I saw her performing again during the casting phase. We approached her and she ended up being the second person we auditioned. We were completely astonished by her work, but she was older than the character in the script, who was supposed to be a 30-year-old woman. But I couldn’t get Wendy out of my mind. We started to rewrite the script for her while casting other people in the right age group. Finally, the script had improved with an older Clara and we could offer her the part. For the role of Daniel, [I can say that] the casting was open to both actors and ‘natural actors.’ I was attending a food fair with the production designer, and we noticed him selling bread with his father. He just happened to be there that day, but he normally works as a business analyst. I approached him and asked whether he was interested in taking part in the auditions. That’s how it all started. Then he improvised [some scenes] with Wendy, who had already been chosen and helped us to choose the rest of the cast.. None of the other characters are played by actors either.
One of the themes being tackled throughout is the family environment and society’s oppression. Were you aiming to unpack the local dimension of such issue or a more universal one?
In the beginning, I was focusing on depicting the characters’ conditions within that family environment and living in that specific fictional town of Costa Rica. As we moved forward, it became a more universal movie, since we all live in a patriarchal world, which has religion as one of its pillars. This also applies to families who are not religious, and that happens because religion is part of tradition. So for me it’s a very universal movie in terms of the themes it covers, but its context is still very specific.
What were your main visual references?
We watched many films that work with magical realism, to see the different ways they’ve brought it to life on the big screen. One of them is “The Wonders” by Alice Rohrwacher. I really love her work. I also got inspired by the visual poetry of Jeremiah Zagar’s “We the Animals”. It’s a beautiful film, but of course these are just a couple of examples, we watched many more…
What about the main challenges you encountered along the way?
One of the challenges was definitely working on a low budget. But what was really great was having a lot of time to plan things, and this made it up for the lack of greater financing. We could do a lot of research, find what we needed and rehearse for a few weeks. All of this was done to limit the possible challenges we’d have encountered afterwards. Also, we couldn’t foresee the nature’s behavior during the shoot, so we learned how to adjust to it. And, of course, working with a horse [the family’s fairytale-like white horse, Yuca] was definitely another challenge. Horses can be very scared, they feel at the bottom of the chain, in a way. In the beginning she wasn’t used to our presence but later formed a connection with the team, and especially with Wendy.
How did the idea for the scene of the earthquake at the party come about?
Throughout the movie, we witness Clara’s connection with nature. As she starts to discover and accept herself, she’s not only able to listen to nature, but also to affect it. It’s a way to express her feelings. I saw her as a pressure cooker on the verge of exploding.
Could you tell us something about the working conditions of women in film in Costa Rica?
I’d say the situation is the same as in other industries. There’s a lot to fight for in terms of representation, and not just for women… In Costa Rica there’s surely much work to be done. But the majority of Costa Rican movies being showcased at film festivals and being distributed worldwide happen to be directed by women. There is a very strong movement active and uniting women directors, and that’s cool. We’re very committed politically. This doesn’t mean, however, that women are getting most of the work or equal paychecks, though. There are other areas in film outside of directing […] Diversity is not just about who is making movies, but also about who these movies are aimed to… Speaking about my personal experience in the world, and not just about Costa Rica in particular, I have no idea if I was discriminated, behind closed doors, for being a woman. I can’t know whether I’m not supported because I’m a woman or just because the project isn’t ready.
And that’s the most difficult form of discrimination to prove, because it’s hard to quantify it and to certify it.
Yes, totally. You can only see what gets done and start looking at the figures.
I agree, that’s what some countries are trying to monitor, lately. Did you release the movie in Costa Rica?
Yes, it had two releases so far – in Costa Rica and in Sweden. Our sales agent, Luxbox, sold it to all the major territories. It will be distributed by Oscilloscope in the US and Epicentre in France over the course of this year.
Did you get a taste of the Costa Rican audience’s reactions?
Yes. The local distributor had a very active online presence, and the audience has been very responsive. So, for example, during the Q&As many people spoke up about sensitive topics including sexuality. I was positively surprised that the conversation has been so open. Somehow, the movie acted as a platform to unpack these themes.